Although separated by only a singular road and (relatively) short hour-long drive, the difference between Riviera Maya and Cancun is very much apparent, especially if you’re trying to decide whether you want to visit the varied southernly collection of towns or the big party city that’s also the largest settlement in Quintana Roo. While Cancun certainly has more of an international name, Riviera Maya definitely has more diversity, as well as being more centrally located in the state.
If you’re eager for a holiday on the Mexican Caribbean coast but feel like you’re stuck choosing between these two excellent spots, then read ahead: we’ve got Riviera Maya and Cancun battling head-to-head on some of the most important categories any good holidaymaker would look for in a vacation destination.
Activities and Excursions
Cancun’s recent history as a top-tier destination has cultivated a massive industry dedicated to more active and cultural pursuits than the partying it was once most known for. While nightlife remains a central part of the Cancun story, there’s also the opportunity to schedule tours to visit ancient ruins, swim in the natural wonders that are the cenotes of Quintana Roo, and more traditional holiday activities, like golfing or water sports. All-in-all, it has everything you’d want in terms of activities and excursions.
However, Riviera Maya has benefited from Cancun’s development, and as a result has everything the northern city does in terms of things to do. Every single tour you can do from Cancun is also possible from Riviera Maya, with transport costs often cheaper as many of the major Cancun activities are either in the Riviera Maya region, or closer to the stretch of land than they are to Cancun.
Another aspect of supremacy that Riviera Maya has in this category is the fact it’s spread out, and therefore home to a variety of different towns with their own unique attractions. While Cancun is somewhat sprawling, it is still one city, while Riviera Maya encompasses everything from Puerto Morelos to Playa del Carmen – and some argue it goes even more south. This means there’s so much more to do without even leaving the area, which can’t be said of Cancun. An obvious win here for Riviera Maya.
Food and Drink
Cancun is home to a whole host of great bars and restaurants, especially the former. While there is everything from haute cuisine to empanada stands where you can get a meal for under a dollar in the city, it must be said that it doesn’t really have a foodie culture. However, Cancun does boast lots of great drinking holes, including dive bars and high-end cocktail venues where mixologists create concoctions the likes of which you’ve never had before.
Riviera Maya, on the other hand, excels at all kinds of food and drink. While many venues might not have the popping atmosphere that makes up some Cancun bars (and is occasionally a bit much, especially if you’re just in for a relaxing drink) the quality of product and service is unmatched, especially in the luxurious hotels and resorts that line the coast.
It’s not just high-end, expensive restaurants and buffets in Riviera Maya either. The sheer number of small towns in the region means it’s home to much more authentic – and a higher quality of – local food, from family run restaurants to women deep-frying pastries in shimmering oil on the side of the road. Again, because of sheer variety and a higher quality, Riviera Maya takes the cake.
Stunning shoreline, crystal-clear waters, and thick, luscious jungle that even Tarzan would be happy to swing around in – Cancun seems to have it all when it comes to natural scenery. The coastal city is home to bone-white beaches and close enough to the rainforest that you can visit for a day, so every kind of intrepid nature lover will be happy. The famous, vividly blue cenotes are also just a drive away, which is another benefit – although most will be happy lounging by the gently lapping sea.
With that said, the best beaches in Riviera Maya and Cancun are in the former, with Cancun’s beaches often overcrowded and, although clean, much less so than the quieter Riviera Maya beaches.
Again, this is a bit of an unfair fight as Riviera Maya has a much larger coastline to pick from, but there’s no doubting its superiority in this category. As before, location has made the difference between Riviera Maya and Cancun starker than you’d imagine at first glance.
It’s not just beaches that Riviera Maya wins on either; the jungle is also incredibly close to this stretch of coast, and most of the best natural scenery – the cenotes, the rare wildlife, and the Sian Ka’an biosphere – are all much closer than they are to Cancun. This means plenty of chances for natural serenity, rare-animal spotting, and idyllic views that are so perfect they’d only be made worse with a filter. Yet another win for Riviera Maya.
This is probably the one category that Cancun wins with complete ease. Although Riviera Maya has its fair share of cool bars and even big clubs where you can party hard until sunset, nothing can quite beat Cancun when it comes to nightlife – and that’s true globally, not just when comparing these two holiday spots. If you love dancing the night away, then Cancun is your best bet.
History and Culture
Cancun, despite its reputation, is close to a number of historically and culturally relevant sites, including a variety of Mayan ruins. Aside from exciting archaeology, there are also a lot of working traditional Mayan villages in the region, so between lounging in the sun and sipping on cocktails you can learn about the ancient history of Quintana Roo. The city is also home to several museums and galleries, so art-lovers will have plenty of pieces to go and look at.
The difference between Riviera Maya and Cancun when it comes to this category is again related to distance and location. Riviera Maya is closer to many of the ancient ruins, and because of the smaller towns and villages that it encompasses, is also more of a culturally enriching experience to visit – if you get out to these small settlements, that is.
Like Cancun, there are also several galleries and museums, including the Riviera Art Gallery, a hub of modern and classical Mexican art. Another win for Riviera Maya.